Defending a Democracy Is Not the Same as Imposing One


Vern Loomis - TRANSCEND Media Service

1 Mar 2023 – “There can be no military solution to this conflict.” It’s the oft-repeated phrase made by U.S. political/military strategists when reassessing a venture that was unwisely initiated.

In her 2021 “Liberal Democracy Is Worth a Fight” article, Anne Applebaum cites it multiple times to chide those making it as if being ignorant of another common phrase: “Quitters lose.” Her consternation is in regards to the U.S. led abandonment of Afghanistan. The strategists know it of course, that when one side abandons the field, the other side is the de facto winner. The “no military solution” statement is simply and belatedly made to acknowledge the reality of what should have been obvious before it began: military occupation was a mistake – a naïve, short-sighted, and jingoistic mistake. The insertion of U.S. military muscle to overlay North American “freedom and democracy” on the culture of a resistant foreign populace is in itself a contradiction of purpose. Our 20-year venture leading up to the Afghanistan debacle was an authoritarian-like attempt to transform a theocratic authoritarian-minded culture into a Western-leaning liberal democracy.

In regards to the abandonment, Applebaum says this:

“The war ends because one side wins. One side has better weapons, better morale, more outside support. One side has better generals, better soldiers, more stamina. Or, sometimes, one side is more willing to use violence, cruelty, and terror, and is more prepared to die in order to inflict violence, cruelty, and terror on other people.”

There’s much to consider in her statement. Is it meant as a general statement on the fortunes of war, or is it aimed particularly at the winner of the war in Afghanistan? The first few sentences seem to be aimed at war in general, while the last sentence seems aimed precisely at the war in Afghanistan. Its inference is that the US quit the field upon finally realizing its basic decency: a nation averse to inflicting violence, cruelty, and terror in its endeavors or at least less willing than the other side to die while doing so.

I’m trying to wrap my head around the author’s assessment, and if it’s truly meant as a rebuke. Is Applebaum saying that the U.S. is reluctant to inflict violence, cruelty, and terror in its conflicts and that it should be more willing to do so? Or is she saying that maybe the will to do violence is there, but not the necessary willingness to die in its delivery? If I’m getting it right, her implication seems to suggest that the US is too civil; that the cause for liberal democracy is dependent upon US fighters becoming more like the Taliban fighters who are seen as being supremely ruthless and mindless of dying.

We are familiar with their atrocities. They chop off the heads of their captured enemy and triumphantly film it. They shoot hostages point-blank in the back of the head. They cut off the hands of thieves and stone adulterers to death. They’re misogynists. They martyr themselves in the name of Allah and kill innocent victims. Whether Al Qaeda, ISIS, or the Taliban, it doesn’t really matter to Western eyes; we lump them together as one and rightly see their atrocities as terrorism. The visceral reaction to human-on-human violence is undeniable. The sight of one human being cutting off the head of another human being should be revolting to any sentient being. Any person or entity that would condone such violence must be inhumanly depraved or damaged.

Somehow though, we’re more tolerant when the committed violence is not face-to-face. When bombs are dropped, or a missile is sent into a car or village, bodies are dismembered just as surely as if a sword was drawn. Heads and other body parts go flying, blood and tissue is sprayed about, and human flesh is incinerated. It happens; we know it happens; we make it happen, but it’s indirect, almost like we don’t actually do it. With hi-tech weaponry, violence can be initiated with nothing more physical than a finger movement from faraway and then whatever happens – well, it just happens. There’s no semblance to the one who would barbarously raise a sword and bring it down upon the neck of another; a button is effortlessly depressed and the mayhem plays out as if of its own accord. It’s hardly visible to the one who initiates the action; if seen at all, it’s just a distant image on a fuzzy sterile screen. We can do this; the USA does do this. So, are we really too civil and unwilling to be barbaric like the Taliban?

Applebaum seems to discount the reality of such violence inflicted from afar and our propensity to use it. Her article suggests instead that the USA has become too timid; we are not like the Taliban; we’re letting fledgling democracies slip away because we’ve become too decent a people to “inflict violence, cruelty, and terror on other people.” So, the US and democracies around the world need to toughen up when facing authoritarian challenges; fortitude matters. The challenge confronting us can’t be met with talk alone: “Because sometimes only guns can prevent violent extremists from taking power.”

But truth also matters. There’s a difference between saving a democracy and imposing one. Before we toughen up and become more ruthless, it might be proper to first back up and acknowledge our initiatives. We weren’t invited into Afghanistan. We didn’t go there to help a democratic nation repel an authoritarian invader. We were the invader. The US invaded Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda, the architects of 9/11. Boldly using guns, we did so, and we did so in rather quick order. And then we tarried; we turned about and boldly used our guns again, trying to remake a multi-authoritarian governed Afghanistan into a united, North American version of liberal democracy.

Prior to Afghanistan, there was Vietnam. Both conflicts now provide humbling visuals of USA abandoning the field to a lesser opponent. “Lesser,” because in each case, the US chosen proxy had better weapons and more outside support. In both wars, USA provided military guidance and well-trained soldiers. In both wars, the US was the foreign entity, the outside support. In both wars, outside support was not the determining factor. Rather, it was the inside support, the indigenous forces controlling the populace outside of US installed proxies that proved crucial.

Neither Vietnam nor Afghanistan were democracies reaching out for US support to oppose an invading force. Again, the US was the invading force. We invaded both countries to install cooperative governments. In an authoritarian manner we sought to impose freedom and democracy. North America used gun diplomacy for decades in both conflicts. When it didn’t work out so well, we tired and twice learned the same lesson: the attempt to impose liberal democracy on a resistant population is a lengthy (perhaps multi-generational) process that does not easily lend itself to the reality of US political cycles.

While it might be functional to ignore the ethical conundrum of using violent military force to deliver freedom and democracy abroad, it’s dysfunctional (and idiotic) to ignore the time frame allotted for delivery. The United States delivers foreign policy in 4-year (or less) increments. Every four years the deliverable is politically reappraised. Every eight years (or less) a new administration is empowered to address the political/public outcry over a prior administration’s policies that have not been delivered. In 1950, under President Harry Truman, the U.S. began lending military support to the waning French colonial rule of Vietnam.

Over the course of 25 years, four subsequent presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon) would each reappraise the albatross handed them, weigh the political cost of wearing it against the political cost of dropping it, and then pass it on. Finally, after the deaths of more than 58,000 North Americans and 3 million Vietnamese, under the ever-growing groundswell of popular resistance and political pressure, the Nixon administration concluded there would be no military solution to the conflict, and ended it in 1975.

The occupation of Afghanistan began with the same disregard for the limitations posed by the USA’s 4-year cycles of political turmoil. Begun under President George W. Bush, the attempt to impose democracy fell into political purgatory under three subsequent presidents (Obama, Trump, and Biden) spanning two decades. In August of 2021, Joe Biden concluded there would be no military solution to the conflict, and finally ended it. The abandoned 20-year attempt took the lives of about 6,300 North Americans and more than 164,000 Afghans.

The Vietnam and Afghanistan ventures ended ignobly for the United States, but began with prideful puffery. Harry Truman and George W. Bush each assumed that military supremacy and the gleam of US freedom and democracy would provide ample incentive for a timely adoption of Western values. When the ventures bogged down, the armed attempts to install democracy became political liabilities to the presidents left holding them.

In each war, the reality of overseeing an “endless” war was overshadowed by the perceived liability of being the one to lose it. In both wars, presidents who had already concluded that “there can be no military solution to this conflict,” continued to put US service members in harm’s way rather than being seen as the one who gave it up. If it’s true, as Applebaum suggested, that North Americans are “less willing to die in order to inflict violence, cruelty, and terror on other people,” it somehow didn’t stop several administrations from offering up the lives of US military men and women abroad simply to forestall political unpleasantness at home.

Applebaum was right to be dismayed with the holocaust. How could one not be? The Taliban victory was appalling. Beyond the death and destruction, it was a dagger to the heart of aspirations for freedom. To all those reaching for it, particularity to the Afghan women who seemingly held it for a moment before having it ripped away, the North American abandonment was crushing.

“Hang in there, sisters,” the tweet by Yanis Varoufakis cited by Applebaum was indeed an infuriatingly hollow gesture of shared anguish. There were no meaningful words of comfort or encouragement that could be given as we slunk back to our established world of freedom and democracy. It wasn’t just the bodies and bomb craters left behind, it was the hopes and dreams first planted, and then uprooted as the USA once again turned about and concluded, “There can be no military solution to this conflict.”

To avoid another such holocaust, to avoid having to reach the same conclusion again (and again), we need be clear about our leaving. We abandoned our proxies, not because of an unwillingness to inflict violence and cruelty. The weapons used and the bodies left in their wake prove otherwise. We left the field, not because of an unwillingness to risk loss of life. The caskets sent home to North American cemeteries show our willingness for that. We stepped away for a reason that needs amplification.

We abandoned Vietnam and we abandoned Afghanistan because we were unwilling to do the time. And if in the future, we attempt to impose freedom and democracy on another resistant  population, we will be unwilling to do the time again. The political reality of 4-year policy increments just doesn’t allow for it, and those who oppose our attempts seem to know it better than do we.

Applebaum is right in stating that liberal democracy is worth a fight. Democracy is worth defending. But when imposing democracy is conflated with defending it, the same realization will be had again: “There can be no military solution to this conflict.” Lives will again be needlessly wasted, friends and collaborators will be abandoned, and dreams will once more be shattered.


Vern Loomis graduated from Michigan State University in 1972 with a degree in psychology. He bounced around for a couple of years, then began an unrelated career in the field of architectural engineering from which he retired in 2018. He uses some of his newly found free time to pursue an old interest in writing. Thus far it’s been political/social commentaries on publications including The Dissident Voice, Counterpunch, and The Humanist. He lives in southeast Michigan with his wife and daughter.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 Mar 2023.

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